In this land of fire and ice, a visit to a botanical garden isn’t the first stop for most when they travel to Iceland. Sure you can see volcanoes (the Bardarbunga volcano is the most recent to erupt), soak in the waters of the famed Blue Lagoon, and walk on glaciers and through fields of thermal mud pots. But for those curious about plants thriving this far north in such extreme growing conditions, the Iceland botanical gardens are an unexpected delight.
The country’s top botanical garden, Lystigardurinn, is a mere 60 miles below the Arctic Circle in Akureyri, Iceland. Considered one of the northern most botanical gardens in the world, it features about 6600 types of Icelandic, Arctic and foreign flora.
The small garden (about 8 acres) originally opened as a park in 1912 and became a botanical garden in 1957. Its mission is to “identify and test trees, shrubs and perennials whether they fulfill demands upon beauty and hardiness in the region.” The garden also serves as a gene bank for hardy plants suitable to the weather conditions in Iceland.
Most of the plants in the garden have their origin in the Arctic or in the temperate zones and high mountain climates found around the world. A small garden bed specific to Arctic plants includes Arctic willow (Salix artica), Arctic butterbur (Petasites frigidus) and Arctic bluegrass (Poa artica). It also includes high elevation plants found in North America like mountain sorrel (Oxyria digyna) and lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis). And, of course, there are Icelandic poppies.
It helps to know Latin plant names here as the plant signage is in Icelandic, a Northern Germanic language closely associated with Old Norse using some unfamiliar letters. It’s hard to read, but the Latin is recognizable. Or you can just forget about reading the plant labels and just enjoy seeing the plants and experiencing the garden.
What’s surprising in this garden is by September the plants look “super-sized” nearing the end of their short growing season in 20-plus hours of sunlight.
The main path in the garden leads to a charming coffee house opposite an expansive lawn and festive gazebo, both popular spots for weddings and gatherings. Small side paths lead to little gems; a pond with arched bridge, classical fountains, shade gardens, sun gardens, and rock gardens. A good plan when visiting is to start at the garden’s main entrance and wind your way down the hill to the exit opposite the fjord. From here you can take a 10-minute walk along the water’s edge back to town.
The garden’s website has an impressive index of the plants growing in the garden with a special section on Icelandic flora.
WHEN YOU GO:
The garden is open from June 1 through September 30. The Icelandair Hotel Akureyri is two blocks from the garden and an easy walk. Across from the hotel is the city’s geothermal swimming pool perfect for soaking after a day of touring. What’s for dinner in Iceland? Seafood and lamb, and lots of it. You will also be offered puffin, whale and fermented shark. Try at your own discretion.
A day trip to Siglufjordur, the former herring capital of the country, is worth the visit for its charm and stunning fjord location.
Icelandair has gateways convenient to many U.S. cities. The airline’s stopover program allows passengers time to visit Iceland for up to seven nights at no additional airfare on your way to more than 20 destinations in Europe.
Featured image – The Blue Lagoon in Iceland / Beverly Hurley
Beverly Hurley is the editor of Triangle Gardener magazine in Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina. When she is not gardening, she loves to travel.